XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

Looks like Slimer has been busy tonight. Whoops, wrong franchise.

  • Developer: Firaxis Games
  • Publisher: 2K Games
  • Release Date:12 October 2012

Originally when news of a new XCOM game was announced, there were actually mixed reactions from the fans. The new game looked to be mainly a FPS, although a tactical one where it incorporated some elements of the original turn-based tactics game such as researching new weapons. Eventually this game was put on hold and then eventually re-branded to The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The game will be released in August.

Then out of the blue comes news that Firaxis, arguably the kings of turn-based strategy games, are behind a new XCOM game. Not only that but it's a reboot of sorts based off UFO: Enemy Unknown. A lot of fans rejoiced since Firaxis would surely do the game justice. In fact, here's a random bit of trivia: the original UFO games were actually published by Microprose which happened to be Sid Meier's old company before starting up Firaxis : ). So you could say that in some ways the XCOM franchise has returned to its old home.

So how well does the game capture that old UFO: Enemy Unknown vibe?

Plot (5/5)
I love sci-fi and the plot for the original UFO: Enemy Unknown ranked highly amongst the many games I've played. In the original, the year is 1999 and aliens from outer space have become public knowledge, thanks to a sharp increase of UFO sightings, abductions and even terror attacks. The wealthiest nations of the world pool their resources together to form a task force to counter the alien threat known as X-COM. Besides the “near future" not being 1999 anymore, not much else has changed with the plot.

I love stories where humans on the verge of defeat by alien invaders, adapts the alien technology to create a level playing field: If one song could epitomise the XCOM ethos it'd be Brave New World from Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds (although the difference with War of the Worlds, is that Artilleryman is delusional).

Also the fact you are working for real world nations as clients and fighting over real world cities adds an extra level of realism and immersion to the game.

Gameplay (4/5)
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based tactics game – a rather rare beast in today's gaming milieu. Basically the game is split into two layers – the management layer and the combat layer. The management layer involves you viewing the Earth for potential missions against alien invaders. This involves either shooting UFOs down or sending a team of XCOM operatives on the ground. While at the base you can also research alien technology at research labs and develop new weapons and armour at the engineering workshops. Besides these two major functions the base is also where you can launch satellites to increase your surveillance coverage for UFOs, assign new interceptors to different parts of the globe and hire and train XCOM operatives. You're also able to build more facilities as the game progresses.

Entering a ground mission triggers the combat layer where fighting aliens is a gentlemanly affair of taking turns to fight, a bit like a chess game. The combat at its core is similar to the original UFO: Enemy Unknown but it's simplified. You can no longer crouch and you don't use action points anymore. Instead each of your operatives has a half-way mark outlined when they move. If you choose to move to any position within this half-way radius you'll have enough time to perform certain actions on that turn after moving (such as firing an assault rifle). However if you go beyond this radius you forfeit any actions for that turn. Some might deride this over-simplification of the game but I think it works surprisingly well.

Overall I think the gameplay is good. One of the best aspects of the game (and this genre in general) is having your team grow and almost become your virtual friends in a way. As sad as it sounds, it's actually heart-breaking when one dies (especially when it's on Iron Man mode) since this game has perma-death – when a team member is dead he/she stays dead (I know that might sound shocking to some players born after the 80s/90s)!

Every time your team goes out on a mission, it could very well be their last.

Occasionally there are some annoying bugs such as invisible pixels (i.e. it looks like you have a clear shot but it isn't, resulting in a squad wipe when using explosive weapons) or when it seems you've got no clear shot at an enemy you actually do (and vice versa). Basically you have to suspend your disbelief at times at how crazy some shots are.

One of the issues that fans of the old series may find unforgiveable is that difficulty ramps up based on triggers. In the original games difficulty seemed to increase on a continuous curve, which meant if you were efficient and quick, you could make things easier for yourself in the long run. You could also build multiple bases in the original whereas in this one you can only build one (although you are still able to assign interceptors to different continents). In this XCOM no matter what you do, the enemy will always have a slight advantage up until the very end – which might be good since it's always challenging but there doesn't seem to be much incentive to rush your research.

Sound (3/5)
Audio in the game is generally pretty good. The only thing I can criticise is that even though there are several voice samples to pick when customising your team members, they're all just generic American accents. So even though you have a squad of Scots, Australians, Chinese and Russians – they still all sound American.

Music (5/5)
Initially I didn't like the fact they went away from the cheesy 80s rock soundtrack of the original – I mean how can you beat the Interceptor theme?

(Okay it didn't quite sound like that in the original but it does prove I wasn't the only one who loved that theme :))

However, I eventually appreciated the fact that Michael McCann's soundtrack stands very well on its own. It sounds very Human Revolution-like, which is no surprise since he did the soundtrack for that game as well.

What I also like are the little callbacks to the original UFO: Enemy Unknown such as the two notes that play when entering the Gollop Chamber (they're heard in the original Geoscape music) – not to mention the Gollop Chamber itself is a reference to original designer, Julian Gollop.

Graphics (3/5)
The game's aesthetic style has hints of anime to it which is great since by doing so it pays tribute to the original. The original game's intro shouted out anime-style, I mean check this out:

There are some graphical issues when a Berserker alien is on the screen however. Every time he starts stomping around it slows the entire game down which is weird, since it doesn't appear to happen with any other alien unit. The temporary framerate drops are tolerable though – just gives you extra incentive to kill the Berserkers as quickly as possible!

Replay (3/5)
Would I play it again? Probably; there are some nifty achievements plus the whole atmosphere to the game is awesome. There are also different difficulty modes although I found that Normal was just right for me.

For those who like to play against humans (or aliens?) there's even a multiplayer mode to increase the game's replay value.

Polish (4/5)
There are occasional crashes-to-desktop but overall, the game is pretty well polished.

All quiet on the Eastern front

Score – 8/10

While there have been quite a few changes made to the original game UFO: Enemy Unknown (besides the obvious such as graphics and audio) they aren't so severe as to distance the game from its core mechanics which involves building a base, intercepting UFOs, training up your team and turning alien technology against them. Veterans of the series should still find this game fun and the streamlined gameplay will attract younger strategy gamers to the turn-based tactics genre.

If you want to get the game, you can get it on Steam.

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